WILMINGTON — The future of the Galleria project on Wrightsville Avenue – and the roadway itself – remain uncertain, but recently several key stakeholders met to discuss possible options and funding, although the meeting was “very early” in the process.
Although nothing formal has been proposed, plans revolve around the idea of turning Wrightsville Avenue into a “complete street” between Military Cutoff Road and Eastwood Road (near the bridge to Wrightsville Beach). That would likely mean bike and pedestrian paths, and a planted median with grass, shrubs and trees.
The improvements are apparently a sticking point for State Street Companies CEO Jeffery Kentner, who recently submitted a Traffic Impact Analysis (TIA) for the proposed Galleria project that said without a complete street, he won’t move forward with the long-planned – but never officially submitted – Galleria mixed-use development.
Last month, Wilmington Mayor Bill Saffo met with State Senator Bill Rabon and Thomas Fetzer, former GOP Chairman and currently a lobbyist acting on behalf of Kentner. Saffo said Rabon – a former chairman and current member of the state senate’s transportation appropriation committee – was invited to provide insight on the NCDOT’s plans for Wrightsville Avenue. Kentner himself was not at the meeting.
“I was contacted by a representative of Mr. Kenter, Mr. [Thomas] Fetzer, about discussing improvements to Wrightsville Avenue, concerns that they had, the development they are planning on building over there, and an assortment of other issues pertaining to transportation with that roadway,” Saffo said.
According to Saffo, topics included the potential impacts of the Galleria development on the interchanges at Military Cutoff Road and Eastwood Road, and how a “four-lane facility, or a ‘superstreet’ might impact that.” Saffo said that there was also discussion of NCDOT improvements to nearby interchanges, whether or not the Galleria development went forward.
The other main issues included who would fund potential improvements to Wrightsville Avenue and, equally important, what State Street Companies’ time frame for development would be.
Saffo emphasized that the meeting was “very, very early” in the process of considering Wrightsville Avenue improvements.
“This was more of a fact-finding meeting. It’s important for me to know about what this road is going to cost, infrastructure improvements, underground utilities, water and sewer lines, you name it,” Saffo said, adding that other concerns included the design process, possibly burying power lines, purchasing additional right-of-way, and possibly moving residences, etc.
How much would it cost, and who would pay?
Without a concrete design plan, there’s no way to accurately estimate how much turning Wrightsville Avenue into a complete street would cost. Saffo said he’d heard figures ranging between $2 million and $10 million.
But perhaps more important than how much the potential project costs is who will foot the bill.
Saffo was emphatic that NCDOT, not Wilmington, owns the roadway – further, the city was not obligated to improve the roads during the annexation and zoning process (the property was annexed from Wrightsville Beach and zoned urban mixed-use, neither process included roadway improvement requirements).
“Mr. Kenter has said he can’t really do this project without the improvement to the roadway — when we rezoned the property there were no conditions for any kind of roadway improvement,” Saffo said.
According to Saffo, the meeting was “nowhere near” broaching the issue of who would pay, focusing instead on what the details on the project would look like.
“Mr. Kenter has told me, and I believe he’s told members of council, that this project is of such a caliber that a complete street would be something he would need to have the type of development he would like there, as far as who pays for what and how that is paid — that has not been discussed, that is something that has only preliminarily been looked at to get an understand of what this roadway would cost,” Saffo said.
A Roadway Improvement Agreement?
Kenter seems to have had a slightly different takeaway from the meeting.
In an email to Deputy City Manager Thom Moton, sent on New Year’s Eve, Kenter wrote:
“Although I was not in attendance, it is my understand that there was a successful meeting on December 20 between the NCDOT and the City regarding the Roadway Improvement Agreement and significant progress made,” Kenter wrote.
Kenter continued, discussing specific funding offers.
“It is my understanding that the NCDOT has agreed to (i) allocate $1.3 million for the improvements to Wrightsville Avenue between Military Cutoff Road and Eastwood Road and (ii) make improvements to the intersection of Military Cutoff and Wrightsville Avenue that are currently needed irrespective of the redevelopment project.”
Kentner added that State Street had agreed to $500,000 in funding for the improvements.
Kentner also discussed some design specifics, including a roundabout proposed in State Street’s TIA for the Galleria project, which Kentner said had been negotiated with Wilmington Transportation Planning Manager Mike Kozlosky, who is also the Executive Director of the Wilmington Urban Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (WMPO), which coordinates various funding streams, including from NCDOT and Wilmington, as well as with Don Bennett, the city’s traffic engineer.
According to Kentner’s email, the Roadway Improvement Agreements is far from being in the early stages.
“It is my understanding that the Roadway Improvement Agreement will be presented to City Council for its consideration on January 22,” Kentner wrote, adding, “State Street has exerted an enormous amount of energy on this project and we hope the City recognizes the value of our efforts. We trust the City will provide a reciprocal response.”
(Editor’s note: Deputy City Manager Thom Morton did not respond to questions about the meeting or Jeffery Kentner’s email.)
‘A big if’
According to NCDOT spokesman Steve Abbott, there were no NCDOT officials or employees at the meeting, and “no one in the department made a commitment of $1.3 million for the project at the meeting.”
Saffo confirmed that only himself, Rabon, and Fetzer were at the meeting.
“There was no guarantee of any money, which I understand has been alluded to — there was no guarantee from Senator Rabon, there was no North Carolina Department of Transportation official there,” Saffo said.
According to Saffo, both the roadway improvements and the Galleria project remain undecided issues.
“If this development does take place, which we’re not guaranteed that it will take place, but if it were to take place – what Mr. Kenter has talked about is a complete street. We passed a resolution in 2016 that if the state of North Carolina makes improvements to a road that the City of Wilmington will consider taking it over — we will consider it,” Saffo said, noting that in this scenario improvements would be funded by NCDOT.
Related: City Council vote is latest step in paving the road for Wrightsville Ave ‘Galleria’ project
Saffo did not completely rule out the possibility that the City of Wilmington would “invest” in some improvements, including those Kenter has requested. But he was clear that any contribution or agreement from the city would have to go through public hearings at City Council, and would require more information on the Galleria timeframe than Kentner or State Street has provided so far.
“I would imagine that any kind of development that takes place out there, City Council would want to know some sort of a timeframe of when development would take place out there, so then we could take into consideration if there was an investment – and I’m just saying a big if – if there was an investment and how long it would take to recoup some of that investment from the property taxes that would be generated from this project,” Saffo said.
Saffo said for the now, Kozlosky and the planning staff will work on reviewing the TIA for the Galleria project. The TIA doesn’t provide site plan specifics, but it does at least give the city a chance to evaluate the project’s transportation.
“We’ll have to see where it goes after city staff has an opportunity to evaluate Mr. Kenter’s proposal, and I believe we have about 40-50 days to do that,” Saffo said.
(Editor’s note: Jeff Kenter had previously agreed to an interview to discuss several issues related to the Galleria project in September 2018, but – according to State Street Companies Project Manager David Novotny, Kentner has had to postpone due to health issues. If and when Kentner can respond to questions, we will update this article.)
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.